Today’s Rogue Fundagelical post is guest written by Philosophy Professor Ted Preston. Warning: Intelligent discussion ahead. You may find this challenging to your way of thinking.

Why Christians Should Not Fear Philosophy

In “God is Not Dead” (a truly horrible movie from 2014), a cartoonishly evil atheist philosophy professor informs his students that he is happy to skip the pointless “philosophy of religion” section of his course given that it is so apparent that “God is dead.” But, to justify doing so, he needs all of the students to sign a waiver, acknowledging that God is, indeed, dead, and thereby consenting to skip that unit. Cue the lone Christian student with conviction (out of a class of 80 or so students?!) who refuses, and was immediately persecuted for his faith. The evil professor forces the student to “prove” that God exists over the course of several lectures, at which time he will be subject to relentless and humiliating criticism by the professor, of course. Needless to say, this courageous teenager (led by the Holy Spirit, no doubt?) ultimately triumphs, proving to the entire class that “God is not dead.” Even the evil atheist professor accepts Jesus in a (literal) “death bed” conversion moment!

Although it would be tempting to offer a critical review of this film, plenty of other people have already done so, and the film is over five years old by now. Unfortunately, one of my main concerns about the film is as relevant today as it was five years ago: that it presents Academia, and specifically philosophy, as something “dangerous” for Christians.

As a philosophy professor, it’s difficult not to take that personally. As a Christian philosophy professor, it’s especially dissonant. Sadly, though, over nearly two decades I’ve had numerous encounters with students that makes me think that, for some of them, that fear is very real and that it has been instilled in them by their family and/or church. As examples:

Numerous students have shared with me a variation of the following: “my family/friends/pastor warned me not to take a philosophy class.”

One student shared with me that his mother wondered why anyone would need to read any book other than the Bible.

Another student emailed me prior to the start of my philosophy of religion class to “warn me” that philosophy of religion was one of his areas of expertise, and that he looked forward to debating atheists and defending his faith. Aside from the hubris of claiming to be an “expert” in a subject for which he was taking a lower division (entry level) undergraduate course, his warnings were misguided for several reasons. I replied to him, thanking him for his interest, but expressing confusion as to why he saw the need for a warning, considering the fact that I am a Christian myself. I also made it clear that my class was not a forum in which people of faith line up on one side of the room, and atheists line up on the other, and then commence philosophical gladiatorial combat.

In addition, countless students, after having a personal conversation with me, seemed shocked that I was a Christian myself. I like to think that this is not because I’m a terrible Christian, but rather because of the combination of the stereotypical view that professors (especially philosophy professors) are atheists, as well as the fact that I make it a point not to proselytize in my classroom. Interestingly enough, both full-time philosophy faculty in my department are Christians. I would describe myself as “nondenominational” these days, having previously attended Episcopal churches, and Catholic churches prior to that. The other professor is a Calvinist.

Is there anything for Christians to fear from the study of philosophy? Is there a biblical basis for condemning philosophy, or fearing it? A handful of places in the Scriptures are occasionally referenced, but the standard citation is Colossians 2:8

  • See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (NIV)
  • Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (KJV)

While this verse might seem to condemn the study of philosophy, not surprisingly, a deeper dive reveals something different. Dr. Greg Bahnsen (a philosopher, and Calvinist) says the following of that verse:

“A closer and fairer reading of Paul in Colossians 2 will correct our misunderstanding, however. We notice, first, that Paul does not prohibit the study of philosophy; rather, he warns us about it. Likewise, parents will warn their teenagers about the dangers of driving, without prohibiting the use of the family car. Philosophy, like cars, can be used in a constructive or in a destructive manner. Paul warns against the destructive potential of philosophy. Secondly, we notice, upon re-reading, that Paul’s warning is not directed against all philosophy, but instead against a particular kind of philosophy. Paul focuses attention on a certain kind of philosophy which is given an extended description: it is “vain deceit” (empty and misleading), follows “human tradition” (the accepted opinions of men), and is based on the “elementary principles of the world” (the presuppositions of those in rebellion against God). This is the kind of philosophy against which Paul warns the church. And well he should! Any philosophy which fits this description will indeed rob us of the treasures of knowledge in Christ.”[1]

The point here seems to be that there is nothing inherently dangerous about the study of philosophy. Instead, its a simple recognition that virtually anything can be dangerous for a person of faith to the extent they allow it to undermine that faith. If we are going to succumb to this sort of fear, however, why would we stop with philosophy? The Internet, television, any book other than the Bible (or any book about the Bible that is inconsistent with ones interpretation of it), or even any conversation with any person other than someone who already agrees with you on every aspect of your faith, is dangerous in the same sort of way. Forget about avoiding that introduction to philosophy course. Avoid college entirely. Get homeschooled instead. Avoid fraternization with nonbelievers, or even people of different denominations. Only watch CBN. Avoid the Internet at all costs. Actually, come to think of it, there are undoubtedly people and churches who recommend precisely that! But, to me, that sounds more like the behavior of the paranoid cult member than a person with a vibrant and confident faith in a God who will deliver them from all evils.

Dr. William Lane Craig (arguably the most prominent contemporary Christian philosopher of religion, and a conservative Evangelical no less) says the following of Colossians 2:8 in an interview:

Dr. Craig: Well, it is rather sobering when you think that the only place that philosophy is mentioned in the New Testament is in the context of a warning; that this is something to beware of. But I like the translation you read because it made it clear that Paul is talking about a certain kind of philosophy. He says to beware of hollow and deceitful philosophy according to human tradition not according to Christ. I certainly agree with that. A godless, secular philosophy of life is something that can be very destructive and is something to be on one’s alert for. But, fortunately, philosophy doesn’t have to be like that. There can be philosophy which is according to Christ and that can be something that honors God, that helps us to more deeply understand our faith, and can help us to defend our faith in the public marketplace of ideas. . . . My former philosophy professor at Wheaton College, Arthur Holmes, was fond of saying that all truth is God’s truth. And I think that is correct. Regardless of who understands it or who discovers it or enunciates it, that person has had a glimpse of God’s truth, truth that is known to God and which belongs to him. So the source is in a sense irrelevant. All truth is God’s truth. The danger though in reading godless or secular philosophy is that there is apt to be a large mixture of error in with the truth. And that can lead one astray and be destructive. That is why Paul warns against this kind of philosophy which is according to human tradition and not according to Christ. . . . We are commanded to love God with all of our minds as well as all of our strength and soul and might. Therefore, part of Christian discipleship, part of reaching Christian maturity, is the discipleship of the mind. I’ve taken as a sort of theme verse for my ministry what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5. There Paul says, “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”[2]

The discipleship of the mind. Here, we have a conservative Evangelical Christian not only putting into proper context the warning offered in Colossians 2:8, but also claiming that there is something positive about the study of philosophy. I disagree about Dr. Craig about many things (primarily his stance on various social and moral issues), but I wholehearted agree with him on that point, and I will offer my own thoughts on the value of philosophy for people of faith in part two of this guest blog. For now, though, rest assured that the caricature of the evil atheist professor portrayed in “God is Not Dead” is far more likely to appear in the persecution fantasies of certain Christians than in an actual classroom, and that Christians have been fruitfully studying (and professing) philosophy for thousands of years without it destroying their faith.